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A Company of FoolsReview - A Company of Fools
by Deborah Ellis
Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2002
Review by Su Terry
Feb 3rd 2003 (Volume 7, Issue 6)

A Company of Fools by Deborah Ellis is a beautifully written story about young people confronting the plague in 14th century Europe. The novel illustrates the impact of life threatening conditions upon the lives, behavior, and mindset of young people and adults.

A Company of Fools is set in the Abbey of St. Luc outside of Paris during the years 1348-49. Henri, the narrator, is an orphaned boy who has spent his entire life in a monastic environment. He is delighted with books in the library. He enjoys being a choir student singing the liturgy of the hours. He also accepts that when he grows up he will enter the monastery as a monk. Into his life comes Micah. Micah is an orphaned street singer that Brother Bart saved from the hangman’s noose. Like all of Brother Bart’s finds, Micah has a special gift - the voice of an angel. Unfortunate Micah is also dirty, dressed in rags, street smart, unchurched, illiterate, and a fount of bawdy songs. When sickly Henri risks his own life by diving into the necessarium (read sewer pit) after the other boys throw Micah in, Micah returns the favor with devout loyalty. Henri teaches Micah how to sing the Liturgy which results in Micah earning the exalted status of soloist and Micah educates Henri about the world outside the monastery’s walls. Their life in the monastery proceeds prank-fully along until the Bubonic Plague arrives in Paris. Under the command of the pope, the monks and choir students begin processing through the streets of Paris chanting the liturgy. When the monks decide that laughter rather than Latin chants would be most helpful to the bereaved and dying, a company of fools is created. Micah is given the role of a pompous bishop and Henri that of a fool. When a wealthy nobleman claims that Micah’s singing healed his daughter, he donates his country estate to the monastery and spreads the word of Micah’s miraculous gift of healing. Soon the desperate citizens of Paris are laying riches and money at Micah’s feet and the new abbot is loathed to convince them otherwise. Even Micah finds it hard not to be swayed by the money and praise, but all too soon Death arrives at the monastery and neither wealth nor money nor Micah’s singing can stop it from entering.

This book offers young people a wonderful glimpse into a world very different from our own and yet, in many ways, quite like our own. Faith and superstition replace our scientific mindset. The day is structured according to the rhythm of the Liturgy of the Hours. Knowledge, education, and power are controlled by the Church. Yet the Church is not immune from the plague that killed one-third of the population of Europe during a 24-month period. Still boys will be boys, and Micah and Henri find plenty of time to invent games, play practical jokes, and struggle with the challenges of the classroom. The friendship between the bookish Henri and streetwise Micah is the eternal story of opposites attracting. When wealth and fame seduce Micah and inflate his ego, it will test the bonds of their friendship.

Deborah Ellis is a writer and a mental health residential counselor. She has published four novels for young people and one non-fiction work for adults. Her first novel Looking for X (1999) is the winner of the 2000 Governor General's Award for Children's Text, as well as a runner up for the 1999 Canadian Library Association Book of the Year for Children Award and the 2001 Silver Birch Reading Award. In 1999, Ellis spent a year working with women and girls in Afghani Refugee camps. She wrote about their experiences in her adult non-fiction work, Women of the Afghan War (2000). Ellis adapted these real life experiences of girls living under the Taliban regime in Afghanistan into a sequence of novels for young people called The Breadwinner trilogy. The Trilogy include Breadwinner (2000) a runner up for the Red Maple Reading Award 2001; Parvana's Journey (2002) nominee for the 2002 Best Book for Young Adults, 2002 Governor General's Literary Award, and 2003 Canadian Library Association (CLA) Young Adult Book of the Year Award (NOTE - the winners for these three awards have not been announced at the time of this writing); and Shauzia (to be published in March 2003). Company of Fools (2002) is also a nominee for the 2003 CLA Young Adult Book of the Year Award.

A Company of Fools by Deborah Ellis is beautifully written novel. It will delight both adult and young readers. The book is recommended for ages 8 years through 12 years and contains no violence, sexuality, or language that will upset even the most discriminating parents. I highly recommend this book.

 

© 2003 Su Terry

Su Terry: Education: B.A. in History from Sacred Heart University, M.L.S. in Library Science from Southern Connecticut State College, M.R.S. in Religious Studies/Pastoral Counseling from Fairfield University, a M.Div. in Professional Ministry from New Brunswick Theological Seminary, a Certificate in Spirituality/Spiritual Direction from Sacred Heart University. She is a Licensed Minister of the United Church of Christ and an Assistant Professor in Library Science at Dowling College, Long Island, NY. Interests in Mental Health: She is interested in the interplay between psychology, biology, and mysticism. Her current area of research is in the impact of hormonal fluctuation in female Christian mystics.


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